Opening Moves by Steven James

Friday, October 19, 2012

Unmet desire.

It’s not just the secret to writing a good romance story; it’s also the key to writing a thrilling suspense novel—which is where I’ve found my home over the last couple years.

At its core, every story is about a character who wants something but can’t get it. As soon as she gets it, the story is over. My specialty is penning crime and psychological suspense novels (although each of them has a strong romantic element as well!). Both romance and suspense stories deal with this unmet desire, and when they meet in the same novel, it can be very satisfying.

Since I believe so strongly in this idea of struggles and unmet desire propelling the story forward, when I craft my stories I’m always asking myself what the character wants rather than what the character should do. The action of the story grows out of the desires of the characters, not the other way around.

Very often when writing instructors talk about stories, they refer to stories as being “character-driven” or “plot-driven.” I know what they’re trying to say, but I don’t believe any story is driven forward by character or by plot—and no, I don’t think that stories are both plot- and character-driven.

They’re neither.

For example, if I spend five pages describing what a character is like without ever telling you (or showing you) what that person wants, you’ll eventually start to think, “Who cares? Get on with the story!” In the same way, if I write one chase scene, then another chase scene, then another chase scene, but don’t make it clear what’s at stake, the story won’t be propelled forward; it’ll get boring.

But if stories aren’t driven by character or plot, what drives them forward?


Always tension.

And tension comes from a character pursuing the object of her desire, not getting it at first, and then finding new ways to pursue it even as the clock ticks and the stakes continue to rise.

In a romance story, when that long-awaited romance begins, when the characters get the loving relationship they so badly want, the story is essentially over. So in a very real way, romance stories are not about romance, they are about romantic tension. (But I suppose that would be a rather awkward way of referring to them. I’ll give you that.)

And this place of tension is such a good place for romance and suspense to meet, where the two genres that can so easily and inextricably intertwine. When a character that we care about is in peril, we feel apprehension. That peril can be a threat to her life (as often happens in a suspense story) or to her personal, emotional well-being (as in a romance story).

All of this came into play and presented me with an unusual dilemma when I wrote my latest suspense novel Opening Moves. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the novel, it’s a prequel to the series that already features the thrillers The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight, The Bishop and The Queen. All of the books focus on FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers and his unique 21st century way of analyzing crimes and tracking down serial offenders (killers, arsonists, rapists, and so on).

Remember how I mentioned a moment ago that when the romance begins, the story is over? Well, at the end of The Queen, Patrick proposes to his love interest, an FBI profiler named Lien-hua Jiang. I hate to give anything away, so I’ll just say that her response, after five books of Patrick being interested in her, sets up the entire storyline for The King, which comes out next year.

So what could I do with Opening Moves that wouldn’t be anticlimactic? If readers already know the resolution of the main romantic subplot of the series, what romantic element could I include in Opening Moves that would still satisfy them—when the events of the story happen ten years before he ever met Lien-hua?

As I wrestled with that, I went back to the question I referred to earlier—asking myself what the character wants. I needed a new love interest, but also one that would create enough tension to carry the story as well as set up the relationships he would have later in the series.

I ended up with a story that bristles with suspense, but that also leads Patrick into his first serious relationship in the series. It’s all about desire, and when characters pursue what they desire most, great stories of all genres, are born.